Published as part of our sister-site GamesIndustry.biz's widely-read weekly newsletter, the GamesIndustry.biz Editorial, is a weekly dissection of an issue weighing on the minds of the people at the top of the games business. It appears on Eurogamer after it goes out to GI.biz newsletter subscribers.
Nobody in the games business is under any illusions about the industry's male-dominated nature. Even so, research showing that the proportion of women working in games in the UK is as low as 4% has turned heads - especially since that suggests a massive decline since the last survey, in 2006, which showed that 12% of staff were female.
Before looking in any depth at that decline, it's important to point out that both figures are pretty dismal. Even the 12% figure reflects an industry in which many firms haven't managed to move past the boys' club mentality - one whose public image dissuades women from considering it as a career in the first place, whose approach to recruitment often directly disadvantages those women who do apply and whose work practices and working environments are downright hostile to women hoping to build long-term careers.
All of these things are shameful, and although some companies have taken huge strides in making themselves into more attractive places for women to work in recent years, it's still common to hear such concerns greeted with a curt "feh, women just aren't interested in games anyway" dismissal from senior industry executives who should really, really know better.
Even given the industry's often depressingly slow progress into the 21st century, however, few would argue that things haven't been improving. The dominance of industry workplaces by straight white males is no longer the given that it used to be - both women and various minorities should, in theory, feel more welcome in the games business now than they did in 2006. So why the decline?
The British Sociological Association, which has promoted the research, reckons that it's down to the culture of long working hours - the almost endless crunch which seems to consume many game development studios.
They have a point, of course. This kind of working culture does affect women disproportionately, since it effectively militates against working mothers, but it also affects many men in the industry, especially those hoping to start families. The net result is that experienced, talented staff are lost to other industries from both sides of the gender divide - a situation which the industry needs to tackle not merely for gender equality reasons, but because it makes absolutely no sense to lose hugely experienced staff to avoidable attrition in this way.
Again, however, this is a factor which has actually been improving since 2006 at many (although by no means all) studios. Some, such as Brighton-based Relentless, stick firmly to a "9 to 5, no overtime, no weekends" culture, which is ideal for those with young families. Many others have demonstrated laudable willingness to be flexible in their working arrangements for those with families, a flexibility which was not common even a few years ago.
So, again, why the decline? In fact, one might argue that a part of the decline in the percentage of women working at core game studios has a lot to do with the rise of other sectors of the industry in which women have been much more welcome right from the outset - social, mobile and casual games, sectors which were small in 2006 but have grown to huge prominence by 2010.
With a strongly female audience, the developers of such games recognise the importance of having a strong female presence in their companies. One of the factors which has always militated against women in core games companies was the perception that these firms were making games solely for boys, and thus the input of women was unimportant - a daft perception which ignored both the significant female audience for core games, and the fact that the talent for making good entertainment is frequently a gender-neutral one.
The shoe is on the other foot somewhat in the social and mobile games spaces, and while the arguments are no more convincing on this side of the fence, the understanding that the audience for many such games is majority female has certainly boosted the value of women in this industry, and undoubtedly drained female development talent out of traditional studios.
With careers in other sectors of gaming - or, indeed, outside the industry entirely - looking attractive, it's hard to disagree with the decision of many women, even those who started out in the business through their love of core games, to jump ship. After all, even if the industry's HR departments and management teams have made strides in their approach to recruiting and retaining female staff, gamers themselves often do a pretty good line in making them feel unwelcome.
One particularly unsavoury episode always springs to mind when I consider women who have risen to prominence in core game development. Cast your mind back a couple of years to the launch of Assassin's Creed - a hugely hyped core title which, like so many others, turned out to be somewhat underwhelming in many people's eyes (but was fully redeemed by the utterly wonderful sequel, I might add).
The public face of the game's development was Jade Raymond - a woman whose intelligence and development talent is unquestionable, but whose attractiveness and gender made her into the topic of leering commentary from gamers throughout the development process (shamefully encouraged by the tone of coverage in some "professional" media outlets), and then into the butt of deeply unpleasant, sexualised slurs when the game failed to live up to expectations in some quarters.
Would a male game developer have received such comments? They're used to having to develop a thick skin, for sure, but I've never seen the kind of hateful, violent and sexual language to which Jade Raymond was subjected being applied to any male developer. For that matter, would a handsome male game developer (yes, they most certainly do exist) find his looks being the topic of so much interest in supposedly professional media coverage of his game? The games media made Jade Raymond into a sexual object, giving tacit approval to gamers to knock her down as such when they decided, with the usual mob mentality, that she was out of favour.
No man would be treated that way - it's hard to imagine even a high profile, openly homosexual game developer (an even rarer beast than the high profile female game developer) being subjected to this level of maltreatment. It may well be that Jade Raymond was fully aware of how gamers may react to her, and had both a thick skin and the good sense not to read comments or forums - I certainly hope so. That doesn't make her treatment, or that meted out to a variety of less high-profile female developers over the years, even remotely justifiable.
Nor does it change the fact that other women, seeing this kind of episode unfold, are likely to conclude that this is not an industry they wish to be involved with. Next time the games media finds itself reporting upon a survey like this one, sucking its teeth and wringing its hands over what can be done to encourage women to join the games industry, it might want to consider its own treatment of women - from Jade Raymond or other female designers through to galleries of booth babes with lengthy comment threads discussing which of them would "get it" - and start trying to be part of the solution, rather than one of the root causes of the problem.
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